Greta Thunberg is not just an inspiring climate activist argues HOLLY HUGHES, while fighting hard to change the world, this remarkable young woman is also forcing us to readdress how we see and assert ourselves in it.
How many times have you been enmeshed in an argument, a discussion or even a negotiation and, despite your passionate conviction, the pep talk you gave yourself before entering the room, or the impermeable validity of your reasoning, you suddenly find your resolution slipping under the steely glare of a superior? Suddenly, you’re clouded by self-doubt when just moments before you were unshakeably sure of yourself.
How many times have you worked up the courage to call out an inconsiderate friend, domineering colleague or lazy housemate only to immediately begin backtracking with placations, apologies, and concessions that immediately devalue the truth of your argument?
To anyone nodding their heads at this, I proffer Greta Thunberg. Declining to follow a patriarchal code of female likeability, turning perceived inhibitors into superpowers, and refusing compromise in favour of integrity, she is not just an inspiring climate activist. She is a paragon of assertion who holds the power to transform not only the world but how we see and assert ourselves in it.
Turning disability into superpower
We are all born with what we believe to be an innate disabler – an individual Achilles heel that inhibits our potential to make a difference. From a visible disability to a weakness only we can see, our self-perception is too often blinkered by what we cannot do. That is where possibility ends – languishing in a misguided surmise that we are unworthy and incapable of the right to stand up and stand out.
I am incredibly lucky: able-bodied, white, university-educated, and cisgender, my biggest weakness is oversensitivity and an inability to control my emotions. However, while this disorder may seem superficial, it is the traditional characterisation of femaleness, meaning that what I consider to be my greatest inhibitor is my gender.
Being a woman was and can still feel like a disability – an automatic disqualification from the roundtables of power and political pulpits.
I am embarrassed to write that I am still loathe to enter a space I believe will ridicule or reject me because of my gender and its tell-tale trademarks – sensitivity and incontinent tear ducts – that are the hallmarks of my personality.
This, I know, is a hangover from years spent working in a hospitality industry where, I was demeaned, ignored, or exploited by both sides of the counter for the simple transgression of being a woman.
Customers consistently questioned my authority or judgement, attempting to override or humiliate me by appealing to a male co-worker. Male colleagues openly objectified women, belittling them further – ‘them’ being any female from eighteen to seventy – by referring to them as ‘girls’. Children. The criticism levelled at Greta for being ‘just a child’ is evidence enough of the pejorative undertones of this language. The fact I have yet to hear a group of middle-aged men described as ‘boys’ is proof of its roots in systemic sexism.
Attempting to speak out against such inequality using the very characteristics that identified me as ‘feminine’ and therefore ‘weak’ was only to isolate myself and delegitimise my argument. I was dismissed in slurs like ‘sassy’, ‘crazy’, and ‘neurotic’; my words ignored in the comforting knowledge they were spoken by an abnormal ‘weirdo’. In the eyes of a male majority, my sensitivity and passion branded me as unworthy of attention, engagement, and sometimes even respect. The right to stand up and stand out wavered under the clout of such stout denouncements until I too felt my vision blurred by patriarchal cataracts.
Greta is my antidote to this. Her authoritative presence in arenas built on elitist exclusivity is a beacon of hope for anyone who has ever felt too small, too encumbered, too problematic to make a difference. As a teenager that defines herself as an activist with Asperger’s, she is the most visceral and necessary reminder that within all of us lies superhuman power and the right to not only be heard but listened to. She has used her disability – an attribute society has told her is an impairment – as the foundation of her power, transforming the negative associations of her diagnosis into the source of her strength. “Some people mock me for my diagnosis,” she has said. “But Asperger is not a disease, it’s a gift.”
Be it speech impediment, mental health illness, physical disorder, skin colour, appearance, we all feel impeded by an ‘abnormality’. Greta reminds us our abnormalities are our superpowers and our disabilities – be they visible, invisible or perceived – are never to be mistaken for inability. Rather, they are the beginnings of our strength because they are what make us unique.
Refusing to compromise
Compromise is a word I instinctively associate with womanhood. I have grown up with it; watched it play out domestically, professionally, and politically as we continue to live in a world where women are conditioned to concede, cower, and give in to the convenience of others. On a daily basis, we find our time, happiness, and safety being compromised by situations we don’t want to be in yet feel powerless to extricate ourselves from. We find ourselves acquiescing to the wills of others and tolerating what we know to be intolerable.
Greta’s condemnation of the patronising platitudes of politicians is a potent reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. Compromise is not an action for us alone to own and concession should not be our given. As compromising usually springs from a desire to appease or please others, Greta’s stout refusal to do so is a masterclass in rejecting what to me often feels like a biological preoccupation with keeping everyone happy.
This liberation has manifested in my personal relationships and the realisation that I don’t need everyone to like or agree with me, as long as I am answering to my own morality.
After all, if Greta is not concerned with being liked at an age when popularity is a currency more valuable than money, why should I be?
Call it as it is
“We have not come here to beg world leaders to care,” Greta told the United Nations Climate Conference in December 2018. “We have come here to let them know change is coming.”
Saying what you really think even when you know it will be neither popular nor heeded is not just an act of bravery, it is an act of self-worth. But it is a difficult one and a task I – and as copious studies have shown, many women – struggle with.
Take the seemingly innocuous example of your digital vernacular. How many of us begin or end an email with an apology for the intrusion – the presumption! – of our presence? How often do we find ourselves employing minimising language that serves to pander to the recipient and demean the import of our message? “Sorry to bother you”, we write. “I just”; “I hope this isn’t inconvenient”. We skirt assertion and diminish our power, diluting what is black and white to a grey that destroys intention with execution.
Greta, however, deals exclusively in black and white. She is a figure of staunch integrity who stands – wholly and unapologetically herself – in front of world leaders, demanding to be heard. Her ability to call it as it is – “you’re acting like spoiled, irresponsible children” – is an education in prioritising truth over the terror of offence.
That education is overhauling my sent box. It is inhibiting the impulse to self-deprecate and the compulsion to undermine valid truths with soft apologies. It is teaching me that I don’t need to be qualified, pardoned or justified – I only need to speak out.
While I cannot pretend to possess Greta’s courage, self-belief or assertion, I’m more than happy to plagiarise them mercilessly. This I did with aplomb when caught in a compromising bedroom situation with a lanky and half-naked Australian.
It’s an encounter we’ve all experienced in flushed, painful disappointment. Somewhere between removing my top and taking an unnecessary swig of beer, I realised I was in the machinations of something I no longer desired and began calculating how quickly I could hasten this mediocre encounter to its natural conclusion. I decided to channel Greta’s plain-talking assertiveness and call out this valiant misconnection for what it was. Ignoring my awkwardness, compulsion to people-please, the torrential downpour and the fact this courteous and handsome tourist had no inkling as to the location of his hostel, I said ‘no’. Without apology, entreaty or justification, I declared our courtship concluded and his presence no longer required in my bedroom.
I’m not sure the courage needed for this act will translate to a fully-clothed reader who, in the distractions of daytime, may have forgotten just how terrifying – from fear of personal safety to humiliation – it is to tell an aroused stranger ‘no’ in a bedroom.
Voicing dissent when at your most vulnerable, your most exposed, is not easy. Yet, thanks to Greta I’m realising nothing is more liberating.
Reader, he left. And I got a full, undisturbed night’s sleep.
The Other Greta’s – Inspiring Activists to Follow:
Keelin Moncrieff: Keelin is her own kind of radical. An environmentalist who, like Greta, has no interest in platitudes she takes pride in calling out a social media culture of greenwashing. Grounding activism in education, Keelin provides an informative platform of YouTube videos, tutorials, and testimonials to inspire others to fight for our planet, all while dismantling the patriarchy and keeping a tongue very firmly in cheek. Instagram: @kee_mon
Lucinda Graham: Lucinda is a mental health awareness and slow-fashion activist based in Belfast. While her advocacy for destigmatising mental health issues is admirable, it is Lucinda’s uncompromising individuality and complete authenticity that makes her truly inspirational. Similar to Greta, she defies social norms in search of her own black and white truth. Instagram: @lucindaggg_
Nova Reid: Nova is a UK-based diversity and anti-racism activist. Campaigning against white privilege, Nova deconstructs the everyday manifestations of inequality in a way that is inclusive, informative, and transformative. Nova is unique as she uses her platforms to engage and educate the very people whose behaviour she is critiquing. If you are worried about your white privilege, or want to learn how you can become a better ally, follow her. Instagram: @novareidofficial